The First Million

I’m immensely pleased to announce BLDGBLOG’s first event, on January 13th in Los Angeles, to be hosted by the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

The event is meant as a way to mark BLDGBLOG’s recent move to Los Angeles; to kick-start the new year in a conversationally exciting way; to celebrate being one of Yahoo’s top 25 web picks of 2006; and to meet a few of the one million readers who have now clicked through to read BLDGBLOG (some much-needed statistical caveats about that statement appear below) – and, thus, an event seemed like a good idea. It also just sounds fun.

So this Saturday, January 13th, from 3pm-5pm, at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Culver City, Los Angeles, I’ll be introducing five speakers: Matthew Coolidge, Mary-Ann Ray, Robert Sumrell, Christine Wertheim, and Margaret Wertheim, who will speak for 15-20 minutes each.

Matthew Coolidge is Director of CLUI; as such, he’s one of the larger influences on BLDGBLOG, up there with J.G. Ballard, John McPhee, and Piranesi – so it’s immensely exciting for me to have him as a participant, and equally exciting that he and the CLUI staff are willing to host this event in their space. If you’re curious about CLUI’s work, consider purchasing their new book: Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America With the Center for Land Use Interpretation, or just stop by the Center at some point and say hello.

Back in 1997, then, I found myself in Rotterdam where I went to the Netherlands Architecture Institute several days in a row to use their architecture library; the NAi’s exhibit at the time was about Daniel Libeskind. While this proves that I’m possibly the world’s lamest backpacker, it also resulted in my stumbling across a copy of Mary-Ann Ray’s Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets, a book I highly recommend to just about anyone – and a book that may or may not even be responsible for my current interest in architecture.

So when I saw last week that Mary-Ann still lives in LA, and that her firm had actually worked on the facade of the Museum of Jurassic Technology – located right next door to the Center for Land Use Interpretation – I immediately gave her a call; and now she’s a speaker at the event.

[Image: Mary-Ann Ray, from Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets].

Robert Sumrell, meanwhile, is co-director of AUDC. AUDC’s work explores the fields of diffuse urbanism and network geography, whether that means analyzing Muzak as a form of spatial augmentation or photo-documenting the town of Quartzsite, Arizona.

Interestingly, Sumrell also works as a production designer for elaborate fashion shoots and other high-gloss, celebrity spectacles. If you’re a fan of Usher, for instance, don’t miss Sumrell’s Portfolio 2; if you like topless women surrounded by veils of smoke, see his Portfolio 1. I like Portfolio 1.

[Image: From Robert Sumrell’s Portfolio 4].

Then we come to Christine and Margaret Wertheim, co-directors of the Institute for Figuring, here in Los Angeles.

“The Institute’s interests,” they explain, “are twofold: the manifestation of figures in the world around us and the figurative technologies that humans have developed through the ages. From the physics of snowflakes and the hyperbolic geometry of sea slugs, to the mathematics of paper folding, the tiling patterns of Islamic mosaics and graphical models of the human mind, the Institute takes as its purview a complex ecology of figuring.”

Margaret will be presenting a hand-crocheted hyperbolic reef, “a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft.” The reef is part craft object, part mathematical model in colored wool.

[Image: An example of “mega coral,” crocheted by Christine Wertheim].

Margaret is also an ace interviewer; don’t miss her conversation with Nicholas Gessler, for instance, collector of analogue computers. While you’re at it, don’t miss her “history of space from Dante to the internet”.

Meanwhile, Christine’s interests lie more in the realm of logic and its spatial representations. Christine has curated an upcoming show at the Museum of Jurassic Technology around the work of Shea Zellweger, an “outsider logician” and former hotel switchboard operator who developed a three-dimensional, internally rigorous representational system for logical processes.

Christine will thus be speaking on what could be called an illustrated spatial history of logic.

[Image: Part of Shea Zellweger’s logical alphabet; image courtesy of Shea Zellweger, via the Institute for Figuring].

Finally, the statistical caveats I mentioned above.

While it is true that my Sitemeter is now above one million – recording visitors to the site – it is also true that if you come to BLDGBLOG four times a week for a year, then you will be counted as 208 different people… So the accounting is a bit off.

Also, it is inarguably the case that at least 350,000 of those 1,000,000 visitors only visited one of the five following posts, which, thanks to Fark, Digg, MetaFilter, Boing Boing, etc., are overwhelmingly the most popular posts here: World’s largest diamond mine, Scientological Circles, The city as an avatar of itself, Transformer Houses, and Gazprom City.

Possible runners-up for that list – though those five really do take the cake – include, and I apologize for this blatantly self-indulgent yet strangely irresistible nostalgia trip: the interview with Simon Sellars, the interview with Simon Norfolk, the Aeneid-inspired look at offshore oil derricks, Chinese death vans, how to buy your own concrete utopia, Architectural Criticism, Where cathedrals go to die, the story of Joe Kittinger, London Topological, and L.A.’s high-tech world of traffic control. Actually, this one had a lot of readers, and the mud mosques were also quite popular…

But now I’ve wasted twenty minutes, assembling those links.

So I’ll link to others, instead. BLDGBLOG would still only be read by myself, my wife, and possibly two or three others if it hadn’t been for the early and/or ongoing enthusiasm of other websites who link in – including, but by no means limited to: Pruned, gravestmor, Archinect, things magazine, Inhabitat, Gridskipper, Boing Boing, Design Observer, Coudal, Artkrush, we make money not art, Subtopia, Ballardian, The Dirt, Apartment Therapy, Curbed LA and Curbed SF, City of Sound, Future Feeder, Archidose, Brand Avenue, Tropolism, hippoblog, Land+Living, Abstract Dynamics, Worldchanging, Warren Ellis, The Nonist, The Kircher Society, Conscientious, Centripetal Notion, and whoever it is that occasionally puts links to BLDGBLOG up on MetaFilter.

In any case, my final point is just to be honest and say that a million visitors is more like “a million visitors” – i.e. not quite a million visitors – and that, on top of that, many of those people only came through to see five or six particular posts in the first place. And that’s not even to mention the fact that many websites have more than a million visitors per month, and so the whole thing is not exactly awe-inspiring.

But who cares. If you’re in LA this weekend, consider dropping by; it’ll be a fun and casual event, not an academic conference, and you can tell me in person whether cone beats sphere.

(There’s also a full-size version of the event poster available).

Fault massage

A few days ago, Swiss engineers “halted an experiment to extract geothermal heat from deep below ground after it set off a small earthquake in the nearby city of Basel.” Nonchalantly described as a “mishap,” the earthquake “occurred after water was injected at high pressure into a five-km-deep (16,000-feet-deep) borehole.”

The idea that some earthquakes might have a human origin totally fascinates me. When it was suggested last year, for example, that Taipei 101, one of the tallest (and heaviest) buildings on earth, may have re-opened an old tectonic fault beneath Taiwan, what went otherwise unexplored was the possibility that some buildings might achieve the exact opposite: through sheer mass and fortuitous location, a building could perfectly weight a faultline… preventing it from rumbling again.

Think of it as a geological piano damper: a building—a whole city—that puts an end to earthquakes. (Yes, I’m aware of this film).

[Image: Los Angeles against the mountains; courtesy of SRTM Team NASA/JPL/NIMA].

Having recently moved to Los Angeles, I find myself thinking about earthquakes quite a lot; but I also find myself wondering if the surprising lack of seismic activity in the greater Los Angeles area over the past century has been precisely because of the amount of buildings out here. Is it possible that Los Angeles itself—this massive urban obesity—is a kind of anti-Taipei 101? In other words, it’s so massive and heavy that it has shut down the major tectonic faults running beneath the city?

For instance, I would love to discover that the Los Angeles freeway system performs a kind of constant seismic massage on local tectonic plates by spreading the tension outward. Specific bus lines, say—traveling north on Figueroa, or down La Brea, or west on Venice—have the totally unexpected effect of massaging local tension out of the earth.

Whole new classes of vehicle could come into existence; like hyper-industrial street-cleaners, these slow-rolling, anti-earthquake machines would drone through the twisting, fractal valleys of Hollywood, pressing strain out of the bedrock.

In fact, I’m reminded of David Ulin’s book The Myth of Solid Ground, where we meet a man named Donald Dowdy. Dowdy, who found himself under FBI investigation for taunting the United States Geological Survey with “a bizarre series of manifestos, postcards, rants, and hand-drawn maps, forecasting full-bore seismic apocalypse around an elusive, if biblical, theme,” also claimed that, “in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas fault’.”

It’s absurd, of course—and yet I find myself wondering: if more and more people were to move to Los Angeles, and more and more buildings were to be constructed, perhaps we might hold the faults in place for a while—a decade, a century—before the earth regains the strength to break free.

(Meanwhile, be sure to check out my interview with David Ulin over at Archinect).

The Weather Bowl

[Image: A passing Illinois lightning storm and supercell, the clouds peeling away to reveal evening stars; photo ©Extreme Instability/Mike Hollingshead. If you can overlook pet photos, meanwhile, don’t miss Hollingshead’s other storm work from 2006 and 2005 – including these Nebraskan auroras. While you’re at it, this storm sequence has some stunning, pre-storm landscape shots].

During a disastrously moderated talk at the MAK Center last night in West Hollywood, where the panelists could hardly get a word in edgewise because of the barely coherent, self-answering, 40-minute monologue of the moderator, Karl Chu briefly managed to say that he was interested in constructing and designing whole continents and weather systems.

Which got me thinking.

Given time, some digging equipment, a bit of geotechnical expertise, and loads of money, for instance, you could turn the entirety of greater Los Angeles into a weather bowl, dedicated to the recreation of famous storms. Install some rotating fans and open-air wind tunnels, build some deflection screens in the Hollywood Hills, scatter smaller fans and blowers throughout Culver City or overlooking Burbank, amplify the natural sea winds blowing in through Long Beach – and you could re-enact famous weather systems of the 18th and 19th centuries, reproducing hurricanes, even bringing back, for one night, the notorious storm that killed Shelley.

You consult your table of weather histories, choose your storm and go: fans deep in hillsides start turning, the wind tunnels roar, and lo! The exact speed and direction of Hurricane Andrew is unleashed. Seed the clouds a bit and reprogram the fans, and you can precisely reproduce the atmospheric conditions from the night William Blake was born. Or the ice storm that leveled electrical gantries outside Montreal, now whirling in a snow-blurred haze through Echo Park.

You could build competing weather colosseums in London, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Beijing. Every night new storms are reenacted, moving upward in scale and complexity. The storm Goethe saw as a nineteen year-old, contemplating European history, kills a family of seven outside Nanking. You soon get Weather Olympics, or a new Pritzker Prize for Best Weather Effects.

One day, a man consumed with nostalgia hacks the control program to recreate the exact breeze on which he once flew a kite over the Monbijouplatz in Berlin…

(For more on the exhibition now up at the MAK Center, download this PDF).

Antarctica’s Underground Sphere-Cathedral

In his book Terra Antarctica – previously discussed here – author William L. Fox takes us to an Antarctic field research city called, appropriately, Pole. This geodesic-domed instant city is built on Beardmore glacier – which, Fox writes, is “a ferocious uphill maze riven with thousands of crevasses,” where high-speed winds are caused not by weather in any real sense of the word, but by “dense cold air sliding off the interior toward the coast via gravity.”

16[Image: “Beardmore Glacier, slicing its way through the Transantarctic Mountains.” Via Glaciers of the World].

Pole itself is an agglomeration of Jamesway huts, “corrugated metal tunnels” slowly blown over with snow, and the massive geodesic dome for which the city has become most famous. The dome is not precisely architectural, on the other hand: “The station is more like a raft floating on a very slow moving sea of ice two miles deep than a traditional building footed on the ground.”
It is structure imposed upon frozen hydrology: the insufficiently modeled glacial surface undergoes complicated deformations, thwarting all attempts to achieve longterm stability. It’s a kind of ice seismology.
In any case, one of the most interesting aspects of the whole thing is actually found below the city, in Pole’s so-called “sewage bulbs.” To quote at length:

Water for the station is derived by inserting a heating element – which looks like a brass plumb bob 12 feet in diameter – 150 feet into the ice and then pumping out the meltwater. After a sphere has been hollowed out over several years, creating a bulb that bottoms out 500 feet below the surface, they move to a new area, using the old bulb to store up to a million gallons of sewage, which freezes in place – sort of. The catch is, the ice cap is moving northward toward the coast (and Rio de Janeiro) at a rate of about an inch a day, or 33 feet per year. That movement means that the tunnels are steadily compressing; as a result, they have to be reamed out every few years to maintain room for the insulated water and sewage pipes. Because each sewage bulb fills up in five to six years, they’re hoping – based on the length of the tunnel and the number of bulbs they can create off it (perhaps even seven or eight) – this project will have a forty-year lifespan. Ultimately, in about the year A.D. 120,000, the whole mess should drop off into the ocean.

Rather than sewage bulbs, however, why not use the same technique to melt spherical chambers of a new, inverted cathedral one thousand feet below the Antarctic surface, a void-maze of linked naves and side-chapels moving slowly down-valley with the glacier…? Rather than a church organ, for instance, you’d have the natural music of the ice itself, a glacial moan of augmented terrestrial pressures. The whole system could be sanctified, renamed Vatican 2, and new saints of ice could win Bible study grants to reside there, in thick parkas, reading Thomas à Kempis over three-month stays. A new religious movement – called glacial mysticism – soon results.
Unearthly, geometric, the voids of this new ecumenical church might even burn reflectively inside with the aurora australis.

4bg[Image: The aurora borealis – yes, the Northern, not Southern, Lights. Sorry. Via NASA].

A hundred thousand years later, the cathedral reaches the sea, where its vast internal voids are broken open and revealed in the glacial cliff face. Sections of nave and pulpit can be found floating in the water, sculpted rims of prayer-domes drifting north in the smooth surfaces of icebergs. Here and there a complete chapel; elsewhere a crypt, its tombs’ chiseled inscriptions melting slowly in the sun.
Some future group of Argentine architectural students will then take a field-trip there, sketchbooks in hand, and they’ll spend two weeks back-mapping the precisely measured structure to its original, geometric clarity.

[Image: The BLDGBLOG glacial cathedral, adapted from this photo, ©Michael Van Woert/NOAA NESDIS/ORA].

Another hundred thousand years later, there’s no trace of the cathedral at all.

Science Fiction and the City: An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

The novels of Jeff VanderMeer fall somewhere between science fiction, dark fantasy, magical realism, and even horror comedy. VanderMeer’s literary range becomes immediately apparent when you consider that he’s been “a two-time winner (six-time finalist) of the World Fantasy Award, as well as a past finalist for the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award.”

VanderMeer_Covers[Image: Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword. See Shriek‘s official website].

Among others, VanderMeer’s books include Veniss Underground, City of Saints & Madmen, and Shriek: An Afterword – the latter published in hardcover just last month. Author news, textual excerpts, MP3s, and imagery from Shriek are all available on that novel’s official website. Meanwhile, along with Mark Roberts, VanderMeer is also editor of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, which includes work by dozens of contributors, from Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow to China Miéville and K.J. Bishop (official website here).
In light of my own conviction that many of today’s most original, historically unencumbered, and frankly exciting architectural ideas are to be found within videogames, films, and science fiction novels, I decided to talk to VanderMeer about his own inventive and novelistic use of the built environment. From his fungal city of Ambergris to the uniquely dark, medicalized underworld of Veniss, VanderMeer’s vision is architectural in the broadest – and best – sense.
In the following interview we discuss English cathedrals, “fungal technologies” and architectural infections, the Sydney opera house, Vladimir Nabokov, “The Library of Babel,” Monsanto, giant squids and geological deposits, nighttime walks through Prague, and even urban security after the attacks of 9/11.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: To start with the most general question first: if architects, urban planners, and even film makers all look for something in a city – a certain quality to the space, a light, a texture, a density – what do you, as a novelist, look for?

Jeff VanderMeer: Every time I go to a new place, obviously it’s an inspiration of some kind – even if it’s the most awful place in the universe. Like, say, Blackpool, England. I think that when I go to a city I actually do look at texture, because texture is very important in the way I layer my writing. When I go to a city – it’s pretty basic: I literally start on the micro-level. I actually run my hand down the wall to get a sense of what things are like. [laughs] A great example, I think, is when we were in Sydney, and you see the opera house from afar and it’s kind of like this fairy tale creation – it looks so light – but then you get up close and it’s basically just a 1970s piece of concrete, with a very rough and kind of forbidding texture. It’s not what it appears from afar; it’s very much an illusion.

So I think when you get to the actual texture of things – when you actually get a chance to touch the stuff – you get a sense of what it’s actually about. That’s why I like traveling – because I think it’s very important, even when you’re writing a fantasy city, to base it on something real, some first-hand experience. I don’t like the idea that the basic core of what you’re writing about is somehow a reaction to another piece of fiction. I want it to be tactile. I want it to be something concrete, based on something in the real world, that you can extrapolate from. Then maybe you layer in some allusions or influences from other fictions – if it’s applicable in some way, if it adds some kind of resonance.

There’s not really a method beyond that; it’s just what strikes me. Like going to the York Minster, in England – which blew me away and inspired the cadaver cathedral in Veniss Underground. Standing inside that building, which was so absolutely amazing, like nothing I had ever seen before – because I had never had a chance to go inside an old cathedral – how alien it looked and how ethereal and yet so solid – and I literally just stood there looking at it, looking at the inside, looking at the ceiling, for more than an hour.

Being in there, and having been stalled on Veniss, that structure – that piece of architecture – saved my novel. I suddenly understood how to transform something from the real world into something imaginary.

15[Image: Interior view of the York Minster. VanderMeer: “Where the sculptures of saints would have been set into the walls, there were instead bodies laid into clear capsules, the white, white skin glistening in the light – row upon row of bodies in the walls, the proliferation of walls. The columns, which rose and arched in bunches of five or six together, were not true columns, but instead highways for blood and other substances: giant red, green, blue, and clear tubes that coursed through the cathedral like arteries. Above, shot through with track lighting from behind, what at first resembled stained-glass windows showing some abstract scene were revealed as clear glass within which organs had been stored: yellow livers, red hearts, pale arms, white eyeballs, rosaries of nerves disembodied from their host.” From Veniss Underground]

BLDGBLOG: How do you achieve – or hope to achieve – believability in an urban setting, giving readers something that (they think) might actually exist?

VanderMeer: As a novelist who is uninterested in replicating “reality” but who is interested in plausibility and verisimilitude, I look for the organizing principles of real cities and for the kinds of bizarre juxtapositions that occur within them. Then I take what I need to be consistent with whatever fantastical city I’m creating. For example, there is a layering effect in many great cities. You don’t just see one style or period of architecture. You might also see planning in one section of a city and utter chaos in another. The lesson behind seeing a modern skyscraper next to a 17th-century cathedral is one that many fabulists do not internalize and, as a result, their settings are too homogenous.

Of course, that kind of layering will work for some readers – and other readers will want continuity. Even if they live in a place like that – a baroque, layered, very busy, confused place – even if, say, they’re holding the novel as they walk down the street in London [laughter] – they just don’t get it. So you have to be careful how you do that. In the novel I’m working on now, I’ll be able to do much more layering because much more time will have passed. It’s set 500 or 1000 years after the events in City of Saints and Shriek. Though I don’t actually refer to specific architectural styles, or to a kind of macro-vision of buildings in the Ambergris universe; I just allude to things.

I also absorb a lot of research. Byzantine art and history. Venetian history. Roman. Etruscan. Indian. Southeast Asian. English. And some of the research was just seeing all of these amazing structures as a child. I mean, you see something like Machu Picchu when you’re eight and it sticks with you! But one thing I find interesting is what people choose to believe and not believe. In the early history of Ambergris, from City of Saints – which does actually have some architectural allusions – the more fantastical stuff is actually taken from Byzantine and other periods. A lot of stuff that’s true to life, people, in emails, will say how cool it is that I made that up. So you never know how someone will react to this stuff.

history[Image: John Coulthart, for Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen].

BLDGBLOG: Do you actually draw, or map out, the cities and landscapes you describe?

VanderMeer: I do re-draw the city on occasion – and that’s why there’s no map. I don’t want to realize, writing a story later, that, oh, I can’t do that… But I do have a small, simple map – I would just never put it in a book. It’s more so that I can have a general idea of where things are.

The last time we went to New York, a friend of ours was talking about how quickly the neighborhoods change there. Things shift. An area that was a bunch of warehouses can suddenly be a new art district – and I also think of the city of Ambergris as shifting in that way. Neighborhoods will go fallow – almost like, in rural areas, how a field will go fallow – and then it comes back as something else.

I don’t like having too complete a map.

BLDGBLOG: That idea – that a whole neighborhood could go fallow – was actually the premise of an architectural project by a London firm called The Agents of Change. They came up with this almost science fictional scenario, saying: what would happen if Monsanto, or some other multinational genetic-engineering firm, bought the entirety of east London…? So they drew up this whole plan with rooftop gardens and streets turned into croplands – in other words, London itself gone fallow. What’s particularly interesting, though, is that they used a kind of novelistic device or fictional plot to stimulate their architectural design; it’s like where creative writing and urban planning intersect. In any case, speculative urban design seems to be a burgeoning literary genre in its own right, from Italo Calvino to China Miéville, or even Franz Kafka and H.G. Wells – or Plato’s Atlantis, for that matter. Thomas More’s Utopia. Are there any specific authors in that regard who have influenced your work?

VanderMeer: I get my inspiration from real life as much as possible, and then from history books and then from other writers. I find Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, for example, stultifyingly boring because of this idea of speculative urban design. Although I like the idea of a setting also being a character, it has to also be a character – not be the only thing in the book.

Sometimes I will use authors as something to react against – and say, well, okay: this is an interesting design for a city and this is an interesting design for a city, but neither of these actually work. By kind of cross-correlating them and looking at the differences I can figure out where it is that I want to go.

There have been definite examples where I feel like the city in question, in a piece of fiction, is not connected to anything real – and it’s almost like what happens in bad characterization. In bad characterization, you can’t really imagine anything happening to the character outside the pages of the book. There are cities in fantastical fiction that work the same way, where the writer has obviously put a lot of care into creating the city but it’s somehow inert. It’s simply there as a place for the author to set a story. I think the best cityscapes are kind of like characters. They’re slightly illogical. There’s much more to them than is described in the book. There’s all this stuff that you don’t know – and can’t possibly know.

The Mervyn Peake books, of course – Gormenghast – were pretty influential in terms of setting as character and the idea that a place can create a certain fatalism in the people who live there. That’s the way it is in a real city. In a real city you are, in some ways, reduced to one of many, many stories. And that’s something I think the Ambergris books try to convey: people are shaped, molded, and even overwhelmed by the location they’ve chosen to live in.

[Image: Gormenghast castle; from the BBC miniseries].

BLDGBLOG: What about Borges? There’s a “Borges Bookstore” in City of Saints, for instance – and his “Library of Babel” seems like a story you’d love.

VanderMeer: Borges, for some reason, always leads me to Ballard – at least how they both manipulate time and space in a way that messes with your head. But I think Nabokov is probably a bigger influence – although he and Borges are oddly similar, because they’re kind of like the godfathers of postmodernism. I think a lot of times, when people think they’re seeing Borges’s influence, they’re actually seeing Nabokov’s. But I don’t really like to be pinned down to one thing.

Again, first-hand experience – it seems, after every major trip, that I come back with just notebooks full of ideas, and sketches. And, it’s funny, because it really is a lot of buildings inspiring emotion, which is not something I’d really thought about till now. But it’s true. The contrasts of Bucharest, for instance, really affected me. There are parts of the city that look like Paris and parts that still bear the scars of Communist rule: these inhuman concrete blocks of apartments that look like they’re falling apart – and all of this around a very vital and energized populace that was unfailingly friendly. It looked like a city in complete transition, like you could find all possible things there, in both a good and a bad sense. And that impacts heavily on the more industrialized Ambergris of the future that I’m slowly working on now.

But before, when I said I don’t really map things out – I don’t – but every once in a while I will have to sketch a building if I don’t have a good sense for where each character is in the place, or what the place actually looks like. Sometimes I’ll get friends of mine who are artists and are much better at that – I’ll give them a description and they’ll come up with something – and then I’ll be able to visualize it better.

babel[Image: A digital rendering of Borges’s Library of Babel].

BLDGBLOG: What non-architectural, or even non-human, spaces or structures have been influential? Reefs, mushrooms, geologic deposits, giant squids, manta rays…?

VanderMeer: That’s an excellent question. The forms of fungus. The wonderful streamlined beauty of a manta ray – these types of things come into play constantly in my fiction. They are constant influences on the cities I describe, especially Ambergris.

We don’t really see the beautiful, alien quality of the world in which we live. And it is the shapes and structures of this beauty that appeal to me. I mean, people laugh when I talk about squid, but, my god, what an amazing creature! What an amazing form! Geological deposits as well. And I sometimes feel as if there’s almost a linkage of form between all of these things that draws me to them.

My earliest memories are of Fiji, a volcanic atoll, where the reefs are just offshore. Our school was right near one of these reefs – and I remember, from like the age of six to ten, we would just walk out there, you know, at recess… And, in a sense, I feel like some of the Veniss Underground stuff was an inversion of that. There were so many crevices and hiding places and bizarre things sort of hidden in the reef. Sometimes my dad and mom would take us out there at night – which was amazing, because of the bioluminescence from a lot of the different creatures out there, including the squid. There was a sense of encountering something totally alien.

I just think this stuff is absolutely beautiful, and alien, and – in many cases – kind of horrific. You read about fungus, and there are certain types of fruiting bodies or mushrooms that you can feed different things. Like one of the strangest things in “King Squid,” I think, is a scene where the father of the narrator creates a mushroom that is mostly made of iron filings – because that’s what he feeds it: ground up little bits of iron. And that’s actually true. A mushroom actually will absorb these types of things. You can make a mushroom that is mostly made of iron. [laughs] I assume it dies relatively soon thereafter. [laughter]

The world is a very strange place. We shouldn’t take that for granted. That’s why I highlight some of this stuff, and write about it – because it’s just so fantastic.

BLDGBLOG: Fantastic – but also vaguely threatening in a way?

VanderMeer: I don’t see it as threatening. It’s just the context in which the character encounters it that makes it a hazard, or a threat. I think that confluences of the inorganic and the organic feel threatening to people for some primal reason that I can’t quite put a finger to.

squid[Image: John Coulthart, for Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen].

BLDGBLOG: In City of Saints you describe fungi – specifically, lichen – as a kind of living architectural ornament. You write how “much of the ‘gold’ covering the buildings was actually a living organism similar to lichen that the gray caps had trained to create decorative patterns.” Elsewhere in the book, those lichen “covered the walls in intricate patterns, crossed through with a royal red fungus that formed star shapes.” What do these examples imply about the possibilities for entire living cities, or even a reef-like architecture made entirely from organisms? What about architectural infections, or diseases and infestations that would act to enhance a manmade space?

VanderMeer: Scientists have already created buildings that are self-cleaning using certain types of bacteria, I believe. So this is as much a “science fictional” idea as a fantastical one, that’s for sure. I’m all about extrapolating fungal technologies. It creates an extra frisson of satisfaction in the reader, for one thing.

Something I’m working toward in the next Ambergris novels is this idea of how architecture and the organic interact. In fact, in the new novel, Shriek, there’s a whole passage devoted to this. At one point, the narrator comes to realize that there’s an entirely other city under the skin of what she can see – because her brother has constructed these glasses that kind of allow you to see with a sense that human beings don’t actually have. And what she sees is that every single building is just coated with fungus, invisible to the naked eye, and with living things forming separate symbols and signs. It’s on every wall that she looks at. It’s like a fungal architecture imposed on top of the city.

BLDGBLOG: Or urbanism in an age of microbacteria – when every surface is just covered with a film of germs and infectious organisms.

VanderMeer: I thought about that, too. There actually is all this micro-bacterial activity – things we can’t see – so it’s not too different from reality. And infections! Infections are so primal, symbolic, integral – whether infections of ideas or infections of the physical. In Ambergris, fungal infections are not just a physical thing but the physical manifestation of a deep psychic wound in the citizenry – a mixed guilt and dread.

I think infection is dealt with rather badly in current literature. You almost have to go back to the Decadents – to before we had vaccines and things of that nature – to see exploration of this theme in an interesting way. But I love the idea of mixing physical and mental infections. We all suffer from mental infections. So what if you breathe in a spore and you suddenly are infected with an idea? (Again, from a forthcoming book.)

mushroom-plate1[Image: From Charting Nature].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if your enthusiasm for all things fungal comes from living in Florida?

VanderMeer: I think Florida creeps up on you in terms of the fungal. It’s there, but you don’t at first recognize it. You don’t recognize it because of the slow pace of life in subtropical climates. So you are lulled into forgetting about decay, and yet even though there is a slowness, or perceived slowness, because of the heat, etc., there is a ferocious and pitiless war of decay occurring at the same time – of decomposition. And it’s an awareness of this that helps fuel my fiction – the juxtaposition of these ideas and the kind of pathos of it, how it mimics the limited span of life.

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious if the more densely knit and pedestrianized urban cores of cities you recently traveled through – like Prague – impressed you with their capacity for turning even a simple walk into an event, full of intrigue and coincidence – or if it just made you claustrophobic, longing for the massive, inhuman highways of the United States?

VanderMeer: Honestly, I don’t understand how we in the U.S. even have a sense of community, except in those cities that allow for a neighborhood bar and a neighborhood grocery store and the kind of walkability that you find in most European cities. We loved the walkability and playfulness of Prague. Prague was the city that, in its entirety, had the sense of mystery and puckishness and slight danger closest to Ambergris of any place we visited. We loved that sense of adventure and exploration in Prague. We loved that around any given street corner we might find a musician or a band or an art exhibit or a movie being shot. It seemed like a city completely alive with culture, to the point of being ruled by it.

That first night in Prague, where you’d spill out from some crooked, tiny medieval street into a courtyard full of light and clocktowers and people… that was pretty amazing.

plicka[Image: Prague, photographed by Karel Plicka; via John Coulthart’s Feuilleton].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, in Veniss, you describe how the “aboveground levels” of the city are “so divided into different governments that a trip from one end of the city to the other requires eighteen security stops.” In City of Saints, an ancient city called “Cinsorium” – a pun on both sin and sensorium – is razed, replaced by a city called “Sophia” – wisdom, reason. Below Ambergris are the gray caps, hallucinogenic mushroom-natives who kidnap unwary surface dwellers. Elsewhere, Tonsure encounters a city seemingly modeled after one of Terence McKenna‘s most extreme, drug-induced visions – a kind of psilocybin urbanism. So you’ve got post-9/11 politics, the War on Drugs, class division, allegorical commentary on the triumph of reason over the senses and the flesh – all of these topics seem encoded into your fictive descriptions of urban space. Could you talk a bit about how you use cities – or architecture in general – to communicate an implicit message, whether that’s socio-political, religious, or simply poetic?

VanderMeer: Well, it’s kind of as you describe – I let whatever’s happening in the world wash over me and into the urban space. I think the mistake in trying to incorporate 9/11, for example, into fiction is in having it be something characters talk about. It’s more about just hard-wiring stuff like that into the culture and cityscapes so it becomes something larger than the characters, that’s just part of the backdrop. I find that almost anything that comes along is fodder for Ambergris, for example. It can absorb just about anything, like a good city should.

But as for how I consciously do it, I couldn’t tell you. I am agnostic, cynical about capitalism and communism, and all for individuals over institutions, while recognizing that central government is necessary to provide social services, etc.

I’m sure that’s reflected in the cities I create.

ambergris[Image: John Coulthart, for Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen].

• • •

You can read more about Jeff VanderMeer at his blog, VanderWorld – where you’ll also find news about his forthcoming books and Shriek: The Movie.

[With thanks to John Coulthart for the use of his extraordinary images (don’t miss Coulthart’s other work); to Neddal Ayad for helping me contact VanderMeer in the first place; and to Jeff VanderMeer himself, who energetically saw this interview through to completion].

Container Home Kit

Back in July, LOT-EK announced their Container Home Kit, a prefab, do-it-yourself assembly unit that “combines multiple shipping containers to build modern, intelligent and affordable homes. 40-foot-long (13.00m) shipping containers are joined and stacked to create configurations that vary in size approximately from 1,000 to 3,000 square feet (90m2 to 270m2).”
Watch the video.

“Each container is transformed [by] cutting sections of its corrugated metal walls,” they explain. “Incrementing the amount of containers allows the house to expand from a 1 bedroom to a 2, 3, and 4 bedrooms home. The landscaping around the houses uses additional containers to configure a swimming pool, a pool house/tool shed and a car port. CHK™ houses can be disassembled and reassembled elsewhere.”
Here’s a poster-sized PDF to guide you through the options, including several dozen external colors:

LOTEK_Contain_CatalogI want a bright yellow one that I’ll park somewhere in Los Angeles, serving as both BLDGBLOG’s new home office and as a space for public architectural lectures. Archinect, Pruned, Subtopia, and Inhabitat will open up similar containers next door; then Edgar Gonzalez, gravestmor, and The Dirt will move in. Soon, a color-coded microcity of container high-rises, run entirely by architecture and design bloggers, will appear – a media complex for the 22nd century, covered in satellite dishes, winning grants and producing documentaries – eventually awarded urban landmark status from the Californian government.
things magazine and The Kircher Society will set up shop. Ballardian. Abstract Dynamics. MoCo Loco. And so on.
We’ll serve too much wine, issue counterfeit passports, discuss seismology and the structural fate of the avant-garde – then design, in secret, an archipelago of hovercrafts the exact size and shape of Hawaii.
Then we’ll invade Hawaii.

(Elsewhere: Architect’s Newspaper and BusinessWeek. Earlier: LOT-EK’s library of airplanes).

Urban Design Review

I’m pleased to announce that the Summer 2006 issue of the Urban Design Review has been released; it’s also the first issue for which I served as Senior Editor. There will be many more to come.

The issue includes some fantastic work. You’ll find an amusing – and much-needed – analysis of New York Times Magazine real estate ads, written by Brand Avenue’s own Chris Timmerman; Charles Jencks’s Iconic Building is reviewed by Michiel van Raaij, the latter being one of today’s most uncannily sharp-eyed critics of iconic architecture (van Raaij’s blog is worth a long visit); David Haskell gives us an essayistic look at urban event places, reviewing architectural attempts “to make the city a perpetual festival”; and, among many other texts – including short interviews with both Charles Jencks and Mike Davis – you’ll find an interview with Jinhee Park and John Hong of SINGLE speed DESIGN. SsD is now relatively well-known for their work on the ingenious Big Dig House, a single-family home built from old Boston highway parts. The Big Dig House was reviewed three days ago in USA Today.
From SsD‘s own description of the project:

As a prototype for future Big Dig architecture, the structural system for this house is almost wholly comprised of steel and concrete from Boston’s Big Dig, utilizing over 600,000 lbs of recycled materials. Although similar to a pre-fab system, the project demonstrates that subtle, complex spatial arrangements can still be designed and customized from pieces of the I-93 offramps: Varying exterior and interior planes create an ascending relationship from ground to roof as large upper-level plantings blur interior and exterior relationships.

UDR is published by David Haskell’s Forum for Urban Design. (David is also Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Topic Magazine).
So check it out.

A Sketch for London

For an exhibit during last month’s London Architecture Biennale 2006, curator Matteo Cainer invited “architectural studios from outside the UK (…) to sketch a visionary project for London.” Graphic speculation about another London yet to come, Cainer hoped, would “further consolidate architecture’s role in imagining a future for the city”:

Architects have been invited to take an outsider’s view, and as such submit a sketch for an imaginative project in the city of London. They are free to choose a site and focus, whether addressing issues of planning, landscape, infrastructure or building. The central challenge remains what it has been for centuries: to make architecture a vessel for new and controversial ideas. Gathering together architects with sketches, and critics with words, will entice visitors into a theatre of architectural imagination where a wide range of daring projects, conceived by some of the most inventive and newly emerging architects, come together in a panorama of architecture’s current potential and promise. This will in turn create a platform for discussion and a critical examination of today’s approach to architecture.

The result was The World in One City – A Sketch for London, an exhibit beautifully designed by Cainer’s own Design Research Studio at Fletcher Priest Architects.

[Images: ©Chris Gascoigne].

After emailing Cainer expressing interest in the exhibit itself and in the architectural projects it featured, he responded with a PDF from which these images were taken. Here we see interior shots, offering a glimpse of the show’s dominant theme: coordinate points of latitude and longitude, geographic sites of architectural speculation.

[Images: ©Chris Gascoigne].

“The show tries to move beyond the current scene, dominated by cyberspace and video simulation,” Cainer explains, “and beyond the familiar client restraints and the fashion parade of magazines.” Instead, the exhibit’s purpose is to focus on “the ‘sketch’ as the fulcrum of architectural imagination. Concepts and subsequent sketches are often underestimated: sketching is not only practical but also essential; it is the quickest, most accessible way for generating ideas.”

A website for the show is in the works, as well as a publication.
Finally, let me just add that the idea for this exhibition is totally fantastic, and that every city in the world, frankly, should perform this kind of imaginative self-reflection at least once every few years. By openly speculating about conjectural urban futures – whether those include pedestrian malls, blimp-aquariums, or even insanely ambitious green roof projects – residents of cities everywhere can be reminded that their own urban environment is an ongoing project, and that everyday life itself can be upgraded, reprogrammed, better designed. After all, the architectural future is just a few words and sketches away.

Archigram: The Restaurant


A Belgium events-planning firm, optimistically called Fun Group, has designed a restaurant – or board meeting, or conference room, or work-desk – in the sky. It’s a space, it’s a thrill-ride, it’s a spectacle – it’s 7,900 euros for 8 hours. (That link is a PDF).
So, first, you’re strapped into your seat, then hauled into the sky by a crane –


– where you’re dangled, securely, over Vespas and the glass facades of European modernism.


But lest you forget your Marxist theories of industry and labor, it all boils down to this guy –


– who can pretty much hold you hostage up there while you snack on crudites and drink endless glasses of Rioja, unaware that the tide has subtly turned…


Meanwhile, all images above are actually screen-grabs from this short film, produced by Fun Group; watch for the stickers that advertise Fun Group’s apparent parent company, or perhaps a mere co-sponsor, Benji Fun.
Coming soon? A building with no structure at all, the whole thing consists of unconnected rooms moving through the sky in unpredictable whorls, swinging crane to crane, everyday, every morning, a constellation of event-spaces casting shadows on the dull corporate plaza next door. The CEO as adventure tourist. Whole motorways lifted by crane into the sky, rerouting the M3 to Paris.
Or a bridge is temporarily delinked from the roads that lead to it – and turned into a flying restaurant…
Buildings that incorporate helicopters. The airplane as architectural extension into the stratosphere. More gondolas.
Etc.

(Via spurgeonblog and Springwise).

Mud Mosques of Mali

[Image: Tambeni Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 2001].

Belgian photograper Sebastian Schutyser spent nearly four years photographing the mud mosques of Mali. A collection of 200 such black & white photographs is now online at ArchNet.

The project “began in 1998,” Schutyser explains: “For several months I traveled from village to village by bicycle and ‘pirogue’, navigating with IGN 1:200.000 maps. The inaccessibility of the area made me realize why this hadn’t been done before.”

[Images: (top) Noga Mosque, (bottom) Tenenkou Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 2001].

Within a few years, however, and over a period lasting roughly till the Spring of 2002, Schutyser managed “to travel faster, and reach the most remote parts of the Inner Delta. To increase the documentary value of the collection, I worked with 35mm color slides, and photographed every mosque from different angles. Whenever I encountered a particularly pretty mosque, I also photographed it on 4-5 inch black & white negative, to add to the ‘vintage’ collection.”

[Images: (top) Sébi Mosque, (bottom) Tilembeya Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 1998].

“With 515 mosques photographed,” Schutyser writes, “this collection shows a representative image of the adobe mosques of the Niger Inner Delta. Advancing modernity, and a lack of appreciation for this ‘archaic’ approach to building, are serious threats to the continuity of this living architecture.”

I might also add that each building is a kind of ritually re-repaired ventilation machine capable of generating its own microclimate: “During the day,” ArchNet explains, “the walls absorb the heat of the day that is released throughout the night, helping the interior of the mosque remain cool all day long. Some structures, for example, Djenné’s Great Mosque, also have roof vents with ceramic caps. These caps, made by the town’s women, can be removed at night to ventilate the interior spaces. Masons have integrated palm wood scaffolding into the building’s construction, not as beams, but as permanent scaffolding for the workers who apply plaster annually during the spring festival to restore the mosque. The palm beams also minimize the stress that comes from the extreme temperature and humidity changes typical of the climate.”

Finally, each tower is “often topped with a spire capped by an ostrich egg, symbolizing fertility and purity.”

Schutyser’s images have been collected in a beautiful book, co-written with Dorothee Gruner and Jean Dethier, called Banco: Adobe Mosques of the Inner Niger Delta.

[Image: Sinam Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 2002].

(All images in this post are ©Sebastian Schutyser).

Planet of Slums: An Interview with Mike Davis (pt. 2)

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Mike Davis, author, sociologist, and urban theorist, recorded upon the publication of his book, Planet of Slums. If you missed part one, here it is.


In this installment, Davis discusses the rise of Pentecostalism in global mega-slums; the threat of avian flu; the disease vectors of urban poverty; criminal and terrorist mini-states; the future of sovereignty; environmental footprints; William Gibson; the allure of Hollywood; and Viggo Mortensen‘s publishing imprint, Perceval Press.


BLDGBLOG: In an earlier, essay-length version of Planet of Slums, you write at some length about the rise of Pentecostalism as a social and organizational force in the slums – but that research is missing from the actual book, Planet of Slums. Are you distancing yourself from that research, or perhaps less interested now in its implications?

Davis: Actually, several hundred pages on Pentecostalism are now being decanted in the second volume, written with Forrest Hylton, where they properly belong. But the historical significance of Pentecostalism – evangelical Christianity – is that it’s the first modern religious movement, I believe – or religious sect – which emerged out of the urban poor. Although there are many gentrified Pentecostal churches in the United States today, and even in places like Brazil, the real crucible of Pentecostalism – the spiritual experience which propels it – the whole logic of Pentecostalism – remains within the urban poor.

Of course, Pentecostalism, in most places, is also, overwhelmingly, a religion of women – and in Latin America, at least, it has an actual material benefit. Women who join the church, and who can get their husbands to join with them, often see significant increases in their standard of living: the men are less likely to drink, or whore, or gamble all their money away.

For someone like myself, writing from the left, it’s essential to come to grips with Pentecostalism. This is the largest self-organized movement of poor urban people in the world – at least among movements that emerged in the twentieth century. It has shown an ability to take root, dynamically, not only in Latin America but in southern and western Africa, and – to a much smaller extent – in east Asia. I think many people on the left have made the mistake of assuming that Pentecostalism is a reactionary force – and it’s not. It’s actually a hugely important phenomenon of the postmodern city, and of the culture of the urban poor in Latin American and Africa.

BLDGBLOG: Outside of simply filling a void left behind by the retreat of the State, what’s the actual appeal of Pentecostalism for this new generation of urban poor?

Davis: Frankly, one of the great sources of Pentecostalism’s appeal is that it’s a kind of para-medicine. One of the chief factors in the life of the poor today is a constant, chronic crisis of health and medicine. This is partially a result of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programs in the 1980s, which devastated public health and access to medicine in so many countries. But Pentecostalism offers faith healing, which is a major attraction – and it’s not entirely bogus. When it comes to things like addictive behavior, Pentecostalism probably has as good a track record curing alcoholism, neuroses, and obsessions as anything else. That’s a huge part of its appeal. Pentecostalism is a kind of spiritual health delivery system.


BLDGBLOG: It would seem that human overpopulation is, in and of itself, turning cities into slums. In other words, no matter what governmental steps or state-based programs are devised to address urban poverty, slums are just a by-product of overpopulation.

Davis: Well, I don’t actually believe in the notion of overpopulation – particularly as it’s now become clear that the most extreme projections of human population growth just aren’t coming to pass. Probably for the last ten or fifteen years, demographers have been steadily reducing their projections.

The paramount question is not whether the population has grown too large, but: how do you square the circle between, on the one hand, social justice with some kind of equitable right to a decent standard of living, and, on the other, environmental sustainability? There aren’t too many people in the world – but there is, obviously, over-consumption of non-renewable resources on a planetary scale. Of course, the way to square that circle – the solution to the problem – is the city itself. Cities that are truly urban are the most environmentally efficient systems that we have ever created for living together and working with nature. The particular genius of the city is its ability to provide high standards of living through public luxury and public space, and to satisfy needs that can never be meet by the suburban private consumption model.

Having said that, the problem of urbanization in the world today is that it’s not urbanism in the classic sense. The real challenge is to make cities better as cities. I think Planet of Slums addresses the reality that every complaint made by sociologists in the 1950s and 60s about American suburbia is now true on an exponentially increased scale with poor cities: all the problems with sprawl, all the problems with an increasing amount of time and resources tied up in commutes to work, all the problems with environmental pollution, all the problems with the lack of traditional urban apparatuses of leisure, recreation, social services and so on.

BLDGBLOG: Yet a city like Khartoum – or even Cairo – simply doesn’t have the environmental resources to support such a large human population. No matter what the government decides to do, there are simply too many people. Eventually you hit a wall. So there can’t be a European-style social model, based on taxation and the supply of municipal services, if there aren’t the necessary environmental resources.

Davis: Well, I’d say it the other way around, actually. If you look at a city like Los Angeles, and its extreme dependence on regional infrastructure, the question of whether certain cities become monstrously over-sized has less to do with the number of people living there, than with how they consume, whether they reuse and recycle resources, whether they share public space. So I wouldn’t say that a city like Khartoum is an impossible city; that has much more to do with the nature of private consumption.

People talk about environmental footprints, but the environmental footprints of different groups who make up a population tend to differ dramatically. In California, for instance, within the right-wing of the Sierra Club, and amongst anti-immigrant groups, there’s this belief that a huge tide of immigration from Mexico is destroying the environment, and that all these immigrants are actually responsible for the congestion and the pollution – but that’s absurd. Nobody has a smaller environmental footprint, or tends to use public space more intensely, than Latin American immigrants. The real problem is white guys in golf carts out on the hundred and ten golf courses in the Coachella Valley. In other words, one retired white guy my age may be using up a resource base ten, twenty, thirty times the size of a young chicana trying to raise her family in a small apartment in the city.

So Malthusianism, in a crude sense, keeps reappearing in these debates, but the real question is not about panicking in the face of future population growth or immigration, but how to invest in the genius of urbanism. How to make suburbs, like those of Los Angeles, function as cities in a more classical sense. There’s an absolute, essential need to preserve green areas and environmental reserves. A city can’t operate without those. Of course, the pattern everywhere in the world is for poverty – for housing and development – to spill over into crucial watersheds, to build up around reservoirs and open spaces that are essential to the metabolism of the city. Even this astonishing example in Mumbai, where people have pushed so far into the adjacent Sanjay Gandhi National Park that slum dwellers are now being eaten by leopards – or Sao Paulo, which uses astronomical amounts of water purification chemicals because it’s fighting a losing battle against the pollution of its watershed.

If you allow that kind of growth, if you lose the green areas and the open spaces, if you pump out the aquifers, if you terminally pollute the rivers, then, of course, you can do fatal damage to the ecology of the city.


BLDGBLOG: One of the things I found most interesting in your recent book, Monster At Our Door, is the concept of “biosecurity.” Could you explain how biosecurity is, or is not, being achieved on the level of urban space and architectural design?

Davis: I see the whole question of epidemic control and biosecurity being modeled after immigration control. That’s the reigning paradigm right now. Of course, it’s a totally false analogy – particularly when you deal with something like influenza, which can’t be quarantined. You can’t build walls against it. Biosecurity, in a globalized world that contains as much poverty and squalor as our urban world does, is impossible. There is no biosecurity. The continuing quest will be to achieve the biological equivalent of a gated community, with the control of movement and with regulations that just enforce all the most Orwellian tendencies – the selective creation and provision of vaccines, anti-virals, and so on.

But, at the end of the day, biosecurity is an impossibility – until you address the essence of the problem: which is public health for the poor, and the ecological sustainability of the city.

In Monster At Our Door, I cite what I thought was an absolutely model study, published in Science, about how breakneck urbanization in western Africa is occurring at the same time that European factory ships are coming in and scooping up all the fish protein. This has turned urban populations massively to bush meat – which was already a booming business because of construction crews logging out the last tropical forests in west Africa – and, presto: you get HIV, you get ebola, you get unknown plagues. I thought the article was an absolutely masterful description of inadvertent causal linkages, and the complex ecology – the environmental impact – that urbanization has. Likewise, with urbanization in China and southeast Asia, the industrialization of poultry seems to be one of the chief factors behind the threat of avian flu.

As any epidemiologist will tell you, these are just the first, new plagues of globalization – and there will be more. The idea that you can defend against diseases by the equivalent of a gated community is ludicrous, but it’s exactly the direction in which public health policy is being directed. As we’ve seen, unless you’re prepared to shoot down all the migratory birds in the world –

BLDGBLOG: Which I’m sure someone has suggested.

Davis: I mean, I did a lot of calculator work on the UN data, from The Challenge of Slums, calculating urban densities and so on, and this is the Victorian world writ large. Just as the Victorian middle classes could not escape the diseases of the slums, neither will the rich, bunkered down in their country clubs or inside gated communities. The whole obsession now is that avian flu will be brought into the country by –

BLDGBLOG: A Mexican!

Davis: Exactly: it’ll be smuggled over the border – which is absurd. This ongoing obsession with illegal immigration has become a one-stop phantasmagoria for… everything. Of course, it goes back to primal, ancient fears: the Irish brought typhoid, the Chinese brought plague. It’s old hat.

The other thing that’s happening, of course, is that bird flu is being used as a competitive strategy by large-scale, industrialized producers of livestock to force independent producers to the wall. These industrial-scale farms are claiming that only indoor, bio-secured, industrially farmed poultry is safe. This is part of a very complex process of global competition. In Monster At Our Door I cite the case of CP, in Thailand – the Tyson of SE Asia. Even as they’re being wiped-out in Thailand, unable to exploit their chickens, they’re opening new factories in Bulgaria – and profiting from the panic over chicken from Thailand. In other words, avian flu is being used to rationalize and further centralize the poultry industry – yet it appears, to a lot of people, that it’s precisely the industrialization of poultry that has not just allowed the emergence of avian flu but has actually sped up its evolution.


BLDGBLOG: What would a biosecure world actually look like, on the level of architecture and urban design? How do you construct biosecurity? Do you see any evidence that the medical profession is being architecturally empowered, so to speak, influencing the design of “disease-free” public spaces?

Davis: Well, sure. It’s exactly how Victorian social control over the slums was defined as a kind of hygienic project – or in the same way that urban segregation was justified in colonial cities as a problem of sanitation. Everywhere these discourses reinforce one another. What really has been lacking, however, is one big epidemic, originating in poverty, that hits the middle classes – because then you’ll see people really go berzerk. I think one of the most important facts about our world is that middle class people – above all, middle class Americans – have lived inside a historical bubble that really has no precedent in the rest of human history. For two, three, almost four, generations now, they have not personally experienced the cost of war, have not experienced epidemic disease – in other words, they have lived in an ever-increasing arc not only of personal affluence but of personal longevity and security from accidental death, war, disease, and so on. Now if that were abruptly to come to a halt – to be interrupted by a very bad event, like a pandemic, that begins killing some significant number of middle class Americans – then obviously all hell is going to break loose.

The one thing I’m firmly convinced of is that the larger, affluent middle classes in this country will never surrender their lifestyle and its privileges. If suddenly faced with a threat in which they may be made homeless by disaster, or killed by plagues, I think you can expect very, very irrational reactions – which of course will inscribe themselves in a spatial order, and probably in spectacular ways. I think one thing that would emerge after an avian flu pandemic, if it does occur, will be a lot of focus on biosecurity at the level of domestic space.

BLDGBLOG: Duct tape and plastic sheeting.

Davis: Sure.


BLDGBLOG: What has happened to the status or role of the nation-state – of sovereignty, territory, citizenship, etc.? For instance, are national governments being replaced by multinational corporations, and citizens by employees?

Davis: That’s a very interesting question. Clearly, though, what’s happened with globalization has not been the transcendence of the nation-state by the corporation, or by new, higher-level entities. What we’ve seen is much more of a loss of sovereignty on some levels – and the reinforcement of sovereignty on others.

Obviously, the whole process of Structural Adjustment in the 1980s meant the ceding of much local sovereignty and powers of local government to the international bodies that administer debt. The World Bank, for example, working with NGOs, creates networks that often dilute local sovereignty. A brilliant example of this problem is actually what’s happening right now in New Orleans: all the expert commissions, and the oversight boards, and the off-site authorities that are being proposed will basically destroy popular government in New Orleans, reducing the city council to a figurehead and transferring power back to the traditional elite. And that’s all in the name of fighting corruption and so on.

But whether you’ll see new kinds of supra-national entities emerge depends, I think, on the country. Obviously some countries are strengthening their national positions – the state remains all important – while other countries have effectively lost all sovereignty. I mean, look at an extreme case, like Haiti.

BLDGBLOG: How are these shifts being accounted for in the geopolitical and military analyses you mentioned earlier?

Davis: The problem that military planners, and some geopoliticians, are talking about is actually something quite different: that’s the emergence, in hundreds of both little and major nodes across the world, of essentially autonomous slums governed by ethnic militias, gangs, transnational crime, and so on. This is something the Pentagon is obviously very interested in, and concerned about, with Mogadishu as a kind of prototype example. The ongoing crisis of the Third World city is producing almost feudalized patterns of large slum neighborhoods that are effectively terrorist or criminal mini-states – rogue micro-sovereignties. That’s the view of the Pentagon and of Pentagon planners. They also seem quite alarmed by the fact that the peri-urban slums – the slums on the edges of cities – lack clear hierarchies. Even more difficult, from a planning perspective, there’s very little available data. The slums are kind of off the radar screen. They therefore become the equivalent of rain forest, or jungle: difficult to penetrate, impossible to control.

I think there are fairly smart Pentagon thinkers who don’t see this so much as a question of regions, or categories of nation-states, so much as holes, or enclaves within the system. One of the best things I ever read about this was actually William Gibson’s novel Virtual Light. Gibson proposes that, in a world where giant multinational capital is supreme, there are places that simply aren’t valuable to the world economy anymore – they don’t reproduce capital – and so those spaces are shunted aside. A completely globalized system, in Gibson’s view, would leak space – it would have internal redundancies – and one of those spaces, in Virtual Light, is the Bay Bridge.

But, sure, this is a serious geopolitical and military problem: if you conduct basically a triage of the world’s human population – where some people are exiled from the world economy, and some spaces no longer have roles – then you’re offering up ideal opportunities for other people to step in and organize those spaces to their own ends. This is a deeper and more profound situation than any putative conflicts of civilization. It is, in a way, a very unexpected end to the 20th century. Neither classical Marxism, nor any other variety of classical social theory or neoliberal economics, ever predicted that such a large fraction of humanity would live in cities and yet basically outside all the formal institutions of the world economy.

BLDGBLOG: Is there an economic solution, then?

Davis: You’ll never re-conquer these parts of the city simply through surveillance, or military invasion, or policing – you have to offer the people some way to re-connect with the world economy. Until you can provide resources, or jobs, the danger is that this will worsen. People are being thrown back onto tribal and ethnic clientelism of one kind or another as a means of survival – even as a means of excluding other poor people from these already limited resources. Increasingly, new arrivals in the city – the sons and daughters of the urban poor – are being pressed by tighter housing markets, and by the inability to find cheap – certainly not free – land. Where cheap land does exist, it only exists because the land is otherwise undevelopable. It’s too dangerous. You’re just wagering on natural disaster. In fact, the end of this frontier of squattable land is one conclusion of Planet of Slums.

Another conclusion is that almost all the research on informal urban economies has shown that informality is simply not generating job ladders. Sure, some micro-entrepreneurs go on to become mini-entrepreneurs – but the larger fact is you’re just subdividing poverty. You’re getting more and more people competing, trying to pursue the same survival strategies in the same place. Those are the facts that darken this book the most, I think. They’re also what darken the horizon of research on the city in general, even more than questions of sanitation and so on. What the World Bank, what the NGOs, what all the apostles of neoliberal self-help depend on is the availability of cheap, squattable land, and the existence of entrepreneurial opportunities in the informal sector.

If you exhaust those two, people will be driven to the wall – and then the safety valves won’t work. Then the urban poor will run out of the resources for miracles.


BLDGBLOG: I’ll wrap up with two quick questions. It’s interesting that you’re raising a family – even two young toddlers – in a world where, as you write, there are emerging super-plagues, earthquakes, race riots, tornadoes in Los Angeles, mega-slums, etc. Are you nervous about the future for your kids?

Davis: Well, of course. I mean, people who read into my work a kind of delight in disaster and apocalypse either are reading incorrectly or I’m a bad writer – because that isn’t the intention. To be honest with you, there’s more of a yearning for these kinds of apocalypse in the literature of Pentecostalism –

BLDGBLOG: Good point.

Davis: – and that’s apocalypse properly understood, its real, Biblical meaning. It’s precisely this idea of an unrevealed, secret history of the world that will become luminously clear in the last hour, and will rewrite history from the standpoint of the people who had previously been history’s victims. I would say that, as somebody who’s ultimately an old-fashioned socialist, or rationalist, with an almost excessive faith in science – you know, I tremble when I write this stuff. I take no joy in writing a book about car bombs, but it just struck me that here was this technology nobody had written about on its own terms, yet it had become horribly successful. It’s a lot easier for me to cope with hypochondria about avian flu – having written a book about it – than if I hadn’t written about it. Let’s put it that way. I feel the same way about the future of my children.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, have you ever considered working outside the genre of critical nonfiction, and – in an almost Ridley Scott-like way – directing a film, or writing a novel?

Davis: [laughs] Well, I have in an extremely minor way: I’ve published two young adult science adventure novels – which is the name I’ve given to the genre – through Viggo Mortenson’s little press, Perceval Press. Three young kids, including my son who lives in Dublin, are the heroes.

BLDGBLOG: How’d that come about?

Davis: It all arose out of the fact that, in 1998, I got this MacArthur Foundation money – and I just wasted it all [laughter]. My kids and I went to the four corners of the earth. I took my son to east Greenland, and one night – because the sun never sets, and the sled dogs howl into the wee hours – he asked me to tell him a story, and I spun it off into a novel. But that’s as far as I’ll get. I mean, living in LA as long as I have, the one thing you learn is: stay away from Hollywood. Never, ever contemplate writing a screenplay or getting involved in a movie; it’s just a graveyard of talented people. I’ve literally seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by the allure of that kind of stuff. And I’ve never had the slightest desire to do it. If I wrote fiction it would be very forgettable.

BLDGBLOG: So if Ridley Scott called you in to write his next screenplay you’d have to refuse?

Davis: I’ve seen people I admire greatly – hugely talented, much greater writers than I am – just crash and burn and destroy their lives: partially because they never learned the difference between good writing and Hollywood. It’s the same way with the seduction of becoming a public intellectual, having lots of fans, and reading in bookstores all the time – which I’ve learned to run away from with horror. Right now I’m trying to simplify my life by cutting out as much of that stuff as possible, because I’m having a ball with my two two-year olds, hanging out in Balboa Park everyday.


(BLDGBLOG owes an enormous thanks to Mike Davis for his time, patience, and willingness to see this discussion through to completion. All drawings used in this interview are by Leah Beeferman – who also deserves a big thanks. Don’t miss part one).